WASHINGTON — President Bush lobbied on Tuesday for Congressional approval of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, saying it would boost the U.S. economy and strengthen democracy in the region.

“That is an important priority of this administration and it should be an important priority of the United States Congress,” Bush said at the swearing-in of U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building here.

Bush said CAFTA would level the playing field for American businesses and make the region more competitive with Asia.

The pact with Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua has faced opposition from elected officials who want it renegotiated to include labor and environmental provisions.

Also on Portman’s to-do list is making sure that trading partners live up to their end of agreements.

“A top priority of mine will be China,” Portman said. “We face a trade deficit that is too high, in part because the Chinese do not always play by the rules. I have already begun a top-to-bottom review of China trade issues, and I will work closely with Congress to see that American workers, farmers and businesses are treated fairly.”

The U.S. trade deficit hit a record $617 billion last year.

Bush and Portman also emphasized the country’s support of the World Trade Organization’s latest round of negotiations. Earlier, Portman said the U.S. would contribute about $1 million to the WTO for trade-related technical assistance. Since the Doha round of trade talks began in 2001, the U.S. has given almost $5 million to help developing nations better prepare for WTO negotiations.

Portman, a former Republican Congressman from Ohio, succeeds Robert Zoellick, who is now deputy secretary of state.

This story first appeared in the May 18, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

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